In General Knowledge

The Uncovered Lives of Sweatshop Workers


Fair employment is a given right for every human. The economic system is merely a “give and take” process. A worker gives effort, offers a service, or provides advice and consultancy, and in return he or she receives daily, weekly, or monthly income. The income a worker receives should be proportional to the amount of efforts they exert and the type of service they present and, in all cases, should be enough to cover their basic needs. Money is not the only outcome a worker expects of a job. Governments and state laws attempt at making sure a worker’s efforts and time are not abused or manipulated and that he or she is given everything they need to manage to produce with efficiency and competence. A sweatshop, on the other hand, stands at the far side of the spectrum like a graphic picture of everything that a “fair” job is not. In this article, we will zoom in to see how it is like for workers in sweatshops and what the outside world has to say about it.

|SEE ALSO: War in the Workplace|

Fair Working Conditions

There is a long list of workers’ rights that guarantee safe working conditions for the employee. These rights govern the relationship between the worker and their employer and attempt at protecting both parties from extortion and providing the employee with advantages like social insurance and health benefits. Among these rights are:

  • The right to not be discriminated against based on race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, to receive “equal pay for equal work.”
  • The right to “rest and leisure,” regulating reasonable work hours and regular paid holidays.
  • A minimum working age for children and special working conditions if the worker is a minor.

If you closely study the few previously mentioned rights, you’ll gather that these are the minimum requirements for a fair and humane life. And you’ll just as easily realize how ugly the opposite picture is.


What Is a Sweatshop?

A sweatshop is a term given to workplaces where inhumane and unacceptable work conditions are the demonstrated norm. The work can be dangerous with no satisfactory precautions, or it can be exhausting, with very long shifts and hardly any days off. The wages are usually very low comparative to the efforts and long hours. According to the US Department of Labor, a sweatshop is any factory that violates two or more of labor laws. Often, children are labored there in violation of child labor laws as well.

The employment of children is sternly frowned upon, but in many poor communities or developing countries, families are left with no other choice but to rely on the few coins their child earns. Because it is a matter of “food or no food,” the prohibition of child labor altogether might backfire in poor countries. Because the child’s little earnings are not replaced by any governmental assistance, so the family might end up starving. For these reasons, approaches aim at regulating the work of children in the cases where completely banning it is not possible.


What Is Child Labor?

Children and teenagers often get summer jobs or even a little part time gig after school. The experience helps teach them responsibility and commitment, and they can use the extra money to get whatever they had their eyes on all year. This scenario is encouraged and applauded and does you well on your resume. But what is the difference between that and child labor?

Child labor is defined by an employment of a child that deprives them of their childhood, interferes with their learning engagements (school), and physically and mentally exhausts them. So while a 4-hour shift in the local coffee shop is not classified as child labor, a 12-hour overnight shift in a clothes factory is. Children need special conditions for “jobs” to be a satisfactory and enlightening experience. A total reliance on the child to support his family, where they work for hours and hours for minimum wages that they end up handing to their parents, is certainly exploitive and inhumane.


Sweatshop Facts

The conditions in sweatshops are very bad they can be on the verge of deadly. Usually, the workers are cramped in small spaces with poor ventilation and with no emergency exits in case of fires or earthquakes. Some of the jobs demand extreme concentration and certain sitting positions that can seriously harm the eyes and the spine with the long hours and the little rest. The shifts go as long as 12 hours and in some cases weekends are nonexistent. With no proper health care or insurance, the workers’ hygiene and physical health are often compromised. The small earnings the workers eventually make do not help improve their economic state as much as it saves them from starving. So in a way, working in a sweatshop may not be a temporary step but more of a permanent lifestyle.

Here are a few more sweatshop facts:

  • An estimated number of 250 million children are forced into child labor in developing countries. These children are aged 5 to 14 and most of them have already abandoned education.
  • According to a study, consumers are willing to pay 15% more of the product’s price to ensure it is not produced in a sweatshop. The same study confirms that doubling the workers’ salary will only increase the final price 1.8%.
  • Workers can get paid 20-25 cents per a garment that costs 140$ for a regular consumer.
  • Because women make a huge percentage of the workers (85-90%), they are often forced into birth control to avoid pregnancy and the consequent maternity leaves and health needs that the employers will have to pay for.
  • Sweatshops are not exclusive to developing countries; many factories in America are equally exploitive and their horrible conditions escape the watchful eyes of the US Department of Labor.

If the above sweatshop facts don’t draw an already too ugly picture for you, let us dive into the stories of sweatshop workers and the awful struggles they have to normalize and live with every day.


Sweatshop Real Life Stories

We all complain about our jobs occasionally. Exploitation and slight verbal abuse are probably prevalent everywhere you will go. Because it is natural that you’ll come across malicious human beings in your lifetime, the rules that govern your rights should not rely on common humanity but a law: a law that punishes a bad behavior and makes sure it doesn’t pass unnoticed. That is mainly the issue with sweat factories, that a government allows such workplaces to exist and the world rewards their crimes, consumes their products, and pays money for others’ sufferings. Here are some of the infamous sweatshop stories.

The Rana Plaza Collapse

The Rana Plaza was an 8-story building in Savar, Bangladesh. The building contained 5 garment factories and apartments, a bank, and others shops. When cracks were found in the building, the bank and the shops responded by immediately closing; the garment factories ignored the warnings. Workers were forced to attend work just as regularly despite the impeding dangers. The building collapsed one day after the warnings, in the morning, during the rush hour.

The incident took place on the 24th of April, 2013, and is considered by far the deadliest garment factory accident in history. The search for the dead ended in the middle of May and an estimated number of 1129 were found dead. More than 2500 individuals were rescued throughout the days after the accident, displaying different injuries, of course.

A few days after the collapse the owner was arrested, workers of Bangladesh rioted in the streets, and the garment factories owners were also taken to court. But if the Rana Plaza collapse is an indicator of anything, it is of the disregard these employers had for human lives. In their minds, the reward outweighed the risk. The day’s produce must have been 3 times more valuable than the souls, families, and future of the workers inside.

An Undercover Journalist in a Sweatshop

After the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, a Canadian journalist decided to work under cover in a sweat factory to learn for herself what is a sweatshop really like. Because employers are often too careful to let journalists in, the Canadian journalist required a local’s help. That was arranged and she was introduced to the employer as the sister of a local taxi driver’s wife who came to town in desperate need for a job.

She reported many appalling conditions: the prevalence of young children working long shifts as much as adults; the little space; the back-breaking sitting position. The journalist narrates that she was assigned to work under the supervision of a 9-year old. The child was meant to train her to do the job. On the general atmosphere the report reveals, “A quick tour of the building revealed no fire extinguishers, only one exit – the front door – and little more than a hole in the ground, down a rat-infested hall, for the toilet.”

The journalist continues with the story of her child trainer; she explains that the child named “Meem” has left school to get this job and help support her family. Meem and the other workers receive only about 25 dollars a month and get half a day off on Fridays. Of course, paid holidays or sick leaves are out of the question. The reporter comments saying, “It was back-breaking, it was finger-numbing. It was particularly rage-inducing.” The children worked long hours, hunching their backs cleaning and threading in jammed lines of sewing machines.

Finally, the report concludes that, despite everything, Meem was cheerful, hoping to work and earn her living herself, thus avoiding being sold into marriage for a stranger when she is of age. We can conclude ourselves that children like Meem are making the best out of a bad situation, and that, until any change is really made, there is no better option for them or their poor hungry families.

The Nike Sweatshops Allegations

Several accusations have been made regarding Nike’s use of sweatshops. The allegations claim that after Nike’s factories in China, South Korea, and Taiwan have economically developed, Nike moved to cheaper alternatives, where labor unions are prohibited. The point was to find workers with lower costs who wouldn’t make a fuss about their rights and benefits. Nike denies all the allegations.



The sweatshop-free is an attempt at assuring the consumers that the products they pay money for are not stained with workers sweat and blood. The term was first given by American Apparel, a famous clothing brand. Sweatshop-free is like an unwritten contract between consumers and employers, where employers commit to fair working conditions, safety precautions, non-harassment, and rightful wages, in return for customers’ satisfaction and reality.

People, as we mentioned before, are willing to pay more for sweatshop-free products. That is an encouraging selfless step to build on. Nonetheless, there are other approaches to handle the issue beside the good will of our fellow humans.


What Do We Do?

Power corrupts. That is a known statement and is, to extents, very true. When people in charge are left on their own to handle a big business and a number of people with hardly any voice or awareness, exploitation is the natural consequence. That is why monitoring should be done on regular basis, but not too regular as to be expected. Usually, the periodic check-ups are scheduled so the employers are informed beforehand that their factory/workshop is going to be inspected, which allows them the time to prepare, get rid of the children that work there, and make sure the place looks safe and good enough for the not very meticulous search.

What needs to be done is twofold. First, workers should be aware of their rights, of what they deserve in return for their labor, of what they should rightfully expect from their employers. This awareness can later give them the opportunity to demand what they know they should have. Second, firm laws should exist to protect the poor quiet workers. Inspections should be done without former notice so things are seen as they really are. There is no point in beautifying a grim picture and turning a blind eye to what we can honestly call a crime. A difficult unjust job might not kill a person right away; but it will definitely eat on their energy and health and stamina until they have nothing left to give, ending up thrown away and replaced with younger and healthier individuals, only to repeat the cycle again.

Remember that your new fancy shoes might cover an ugly reality of thousands. Support the cause and shop guilt-free or protest to have your college apparel made in fair conditions now!



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